From the roof of his house, Andrew can see everything in the town of Pandora. Right below is his yard of wispy yellow grass that breaks at the touch. A little way down is the dead creek, a stinking, mucky place. And above him, always, is the hand of God. Briefly, he trains his flashlight on the underside of the hand, studying the whorled, grayish flesh, then he stares back toward the outskirts of town, peering through his binoculars at the mushroom farmer’s trailer.
The farmer makes a drug. Andrew’s not supposed to know about the drug, and he certainly isn’t supposed to take it, but the farmer’s daughter goes to school with all the other kids, so word gets around. He must have mixed a new batch. The townspeople are lined up all the way back to the old Sunoco station, their headlamps making a broken ant trail in the ever-present dusk.
Stupid addicts, Andrew thinks. He’s never going to wait in that line. As soon as he grows up, he’s going to get out from under here. He reaches a hand under his tee-shirt and feels at his ribs. Nice and scrawny. That’s the way you get out.
“Andrew! Dinner!” He pockets his binoculars and climbs down the rope ladder to his bedroom window, then goes down to the dining room.
Andrew’s father glowers at him over a seven-year-old newspaper borrowed from the town library. “You weren’t up on that roof again, were you?”
“You know I was.” He isn’t scared of his father.
“Oh, leave him alone,” his mom says, dishing out a bowl of stew. Potatoes and mushrooms again. The family doesn’t make enough to afford hydroponics. “He’s safe.”
Nobody dies under the hand of God. But nobody’s born, either.
Soon, I’ll be out of here .
He eats enough to make his mom happy, then goes off to his room to do his homework. By candlelight, he poses in front of his bedroom mirror, stretching out so thin and lithe. He imagines himself slipping through the finger cracks, or maybe under the hand itself. Maybe he’ll send help, maybe he won’t. He wonders what it’s like out there. Do they only eat roots and fungus, too?
During the day, enough sunlight gets through the minute spaces between God’s fingers so you don’t need your flashlight all the time. Andrew pedals his bike to school, dodging the cracks in the pavement. Even if the people of Pandora wanted to fix the roads, there isn’t enough concrete. Andrew doesn’t mind.
At school, most of the girls and some of the boys are crowded around Delia, the mushroom farmer’s daughter. Delia wears the best clothes of anyone in town, and always has enough to eat. She even eats meat that comes from a tin. Meat! Andrew doesn’t know what that is, really, but it sounds fancy.
“My daddy let me stay up all last night,” Delia says. “I had to take care of all your parents when they came to our house to get high. Otherwise they might hurt themselves.”
The kids don’t say anything. They’re all just waiting for an invitation to nibble on Delia’s sandwich. Its tangy, unusual odor is unlike any food Andrew’s ever eaten. He wonders if it’s made out of meat.
Delia points to a tiny girl in the front row. “You may brush my hair, if you want to.” Delia’s hair is as red as a brick under a full flashlight beam. The kids don’t really care about brushing it, but they do care about her lunch, and her house. The tiny girl takes Delia’s comb and eagerly begins working.
Andrew turns and goes into the school. He doesn’t care about Delia or her demands. His parents don’t take the drug, never have. It’s none of his business.
“Hey, you there!” It’s her.
He turns. “What?”
“Do you want to come by my house later?”
Andrew freezes. Of course he does. Everyone wants to go to the mushroom farmer’s house. When the hand of God first descended upon the village of Pandora, he’d leapt into action, hoarding the best supplies for himself. Now the people of Pandora need the farmer’s mushrooms to survive, so nobody dares to cross him. But Andrew’s parents wouldn’t like it. He hopes Delia is confusing him with someone else. “Uh.”
She laughs, a sharp ugly sound. “Uh.” She motions for the other kids to join in, and they do. “Tonight after school, we’ll go together.”
Andrew doesn’t tell his head to nod, but it does anyway. “Okay. After school.”
Delia stands up suddenly, causing the tiny girl who was brushing her hair to tumble backwards. The wave of resentment branching from the other kids is almost visible in the grayish daylight. “We should all get to class now.”
The bell rings.
All through the school day, Andrew thinks about Delia’s house. What does it look like up close? What would they eat? The few times he had walked or ridden his bike past the mushroom farmer’s trailer, he had been overpowered by the stench of mushrooms. Nobody lived as close to the hand as the mushroom farmer’s family. Everyone else regarded it as dangerous, or at the very least, bad luck. But the mushroom farmer had openly flouted the superstition: painting a mural, hanging up a sign advertising his wares on God’s hand. He even once donned a pair of spiked shoes—where he had scavenged those, Andrew had no clue—and climbed up, up, up, almost to the center.
In school, the kids learn practical things like hydroponic farming, weaving, sewing, and construction. Even though the adults expect the hand to lift sooner or later, they had to be prepared in case it doesn’t. Andrew stares out the window. The school sits just under God’s ring finger, and in the dim daylight Andrew can see the curves and dips of the fingerprint.
Andrew was three when the hand descended. This is his sky.
After school, Andrew follows Delia to the mushroom farmer’s house. The outside of the trailer is painted a glossy red, like Delia’s hair. They lean their bikes against the porch and go inside. Delia leads him into the kitchen, dimly lit by a row of candles.
“Are we going to eat now?” Andrew asks.
But Delia isn’t interested in food. Instead she makes a beeline for a porcelain jar on the counter. It’s in the shape of a cat holding a fish. “You want to see something neat?”
Delia reaches into the jar and withdraws a small plastic baggie. “My daddy makes this. You can have some, he’ll never notice.”
Andrew’s never seen it in person, but he knows it’s the drug. “Are you crazy? I don’t want that junk. I’m not a loser.”
Delia laughs. “Everyone in this town is a loser.”
Andrew’s flesh is burning. “I want to go now.”
“Nobody goes until I say they can go,” Delia says. She puts the baggie back into the porcelain cat and re-screws the lid. “You can go.”
“What does that stuff do, anyway? Besides make people sick.” Andrew shakes his head. “I still don’t want it.”
Delia smiles slyly. “It takes you outside the hand. So you can see what it’s like out there. Then you come back.”
“I don’t need that stuff to leave. I can leave anytime I want without it.”
“Sure you can, skinny boy. That’s why so many people have done it already.” She walks him toward the back door, out into the permanent twilight.
“I can do it,” he responds lamely, kicking a pile of rocks with the tip of his sneaker. “It’s a lot better than using drugs. It’s healthier.”
Delia sighs. “Why are you so dumb, Andrew?”
But he can’t answer. Delia’s already slammed the door in his face.
Over the next week, Andrew tries his best to avoid Delia. He doesn’t want her father’s stupid drug. He concentrates on his studies of first aid techniques and root biology, and comes straight home. He doesn’t even go up on the roof anymore. Curiosity leads to trouble, that’s what his parents say.
But still, he can’t stop thinking. He read an old book once by someone named Bester, about teleportation: going from place to place in the blink of an eye. Is that what the drug does? And do you have to come back? Andrew won’t come back when he goes out there, not if he can help it.
Delia’s full of it. She doesn’t know what it does. But he still can’t get it out of his mind, and he’s getting bigger and bigger every day.
That Friday night, Andrew tosses and turns in his bed. He needs a drink of water. As he comes back from the bathroom, he catches his mother slinking into the master bedroom with a guilty frown on her face. She’s shaking. All of a sudden, she catches Andrew’s eye.
“Go to bed, son. Just… go away.” She’s wearing her boots.
“Were you outside? What’s going on outside?”
“There’s nothing outside. There’s nothing anywhere. Go to bed.”
Andrew usually listens to his parents, but he’s going to break their rules. On Monday he’s going to talk to Delia.
At recess, he pulls Delia aside and hunkers down with her under the jungle gym. “I need to go back to your house. I want to take that drug.”
“I thought you were a good kid who didn’t take drugs.” She grins toothily, like she’s enjoying dragging this out. “I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“Will you give it to me or not? I don’t have any money.”
“First one’s free. After that, you have to pay.”
“Oh, I won’t need more than one. I’m not coming back.”
Delia giggles. “One-way trip, coming up. Yeah, we’ll go to my house. And you don’t have to be so secretive. All of these kids have already tried it.”
Andrew’s eyes go wide. “What? All of them?”
“Well, some of them.” She rolls out from under the jungle gym. “I’ll meet you here after school.”
In the kitchen, she goes straight for the porcelain cat, and takes out a fingertip-sized quantity of the drug, a small brown ball like a clod of dirt. “Hold on, I need to put it in water.” The water that comes from Pandora’s cisterns is almost as brown as the dirt clod. She plops it in the glass, and hands the glass to Andrew. “Bottoms up!”
Andrew almost spills it in his haste. He pours the concoction down his throat before he can think too hard about it. He doesn’t want to wimp out. Then he falls into a plastic kitchen chair.
“It takes a minute,” Delia says, making as if to check an invisible watch.
It doesn’t take a minute. It takes forty-three seconds.
Andrew clamps his hands over his eyes and screams. The light is so bright, as bright as a case of flashlights. Slowly, he opens his left eye a crack. This is going to take some getting used to.
He looks at the ground. The tall grass bends rather than breaks under the pressure of his soles, and he sits down, dazed. A light rain falls from the sky, resting on the emerald grass like fat jewels. The sky above is vast and seamless, a shocking blue that sears his eyes. A row of lumps marks the distant horizon.
Mountains, Andrew thinks as he drops to the ground and paws at the cool, damp soil. Those were called mountains. Never had he imagined that the world outside the hand of God was so beautiful.
The hand! He looks back, wondering what it looks like from the outside, but he must have teleported far away, because there’s no mighty wrist plunging from the skies, no cracked gray flesh cupping the valley. Pandora will be just fine under there until he can get some help.
Picking through the grass, Andrew searches for a road or a house. The buzz of insects—they grow so large out here, he realizes in amazement—drowns his thoughts until he can barely concentrate. Shielding his eyes with a hand, he looks up at what he now knows to be the sun. It burns him like acid, but he can’t stop smiling.
Below his feet a crack sounds. He snaps his attention to the ground, to a white stick. Sharp where he’s broken it, the stick looks funny; he picks it up. It’s not plastic or wood. And then he knows.
Andrew drops the stick.
Suddenly, a scream echoes over the vast field of green, green grass. It’s a woman’s scream, followed closely by a man’s. Andrew hunches down so they can’t find him, belly pressed to the ground, grass tickling his nose.
The two people chase one another. It’s more of a ritual than a genuine pursuit. Their faces are raw and bloody, their teeth sharp. There is a smooth expanse of flesh where noses should be. They are not human, or at least not anymore. They tear through the landscape like a razor across skin, then head toward the mountains. Andrew knows, somehow, that more will follow, that these two are just the first of many. The sweat on his brow mingles with the mist of rain.
I want to go back, he thinks, hands clasped in a prayer, and closes his eyes.
Delia sits in a kitchen chair, spooning strange-smelling food from a can marked “Spam.” She puts the can down. “So, what did you think?”
Andrew feels his face contort and opens his eyes. His breath goes rapid. “What is that? That’s what outside looks like?!”
“Oh, the monsters? Yeah, that’s what it looks like now. We lost a war, or maybe we won one, and I don’t know if those things are human or not. I’ve never been there myself. I don’t know why anyone would want to go there. It sucks.”
Andrew begins to cry. He can’t help it. “You tricked me.”
Delia just smiles and picks up the Spam can.
Andrew runs. He runs out of the mushroom farmer’s house, climbs back on his bike, and pedals back to his home. When he gets there, he finds his parents crowded together on the sofa, sharing an old paperback. He tries to go upstairs without being seen, but when he gets to his door, a hand falls on his shoulder. He jumps, remembering the creatures, remembering the bone.
“Andrew?” It’s his mother. He just looks back speechless, his mouth hanging open. “You were there.” His mother heaves a loud sigh.
“How did you know?” He’s starts crying again, involuntarily.
“You’ll have to keep going back, you know. I hoped it wouldn’t have come to this. You’ll need a weapon.” Andrew’s mom slips him a long, flat metal tube. When he pushes a button, a thin blade slips out. “Don’t tell your father.”
“Can we beat them?”
She shakes her head. “No, I don’t think so. Unless there are other towns… but I don’t know if there are. But we can try. Every Friday night, we try. It was a very bad idea to go alone,” she says, shaking Andrew. “Now go to bed. You’ve had a long day.” She releases Andrew’s arm.
Friday night, Andrew thinks. Then we’ll beat them. He flicks his pocketknife in and out, and slips it in his pocket.
© 2012 by Erica Satifka
First published in PodCastle, September 2012.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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